Rainforests are some of the only pieces of lush wilderness left on the planet. Just about every bit of land that isn’t frozen or desert has been turned into farmland. Unfortunately, deforestation is a big problem. A popular solution has been to offer locals payments for NOT cutting down trees. But does this system actually work? A group of scientists set out to find the answer.
The scientists knew that these bribes could go wrong. According to classical economic theory, people are selfish; they do whatever helps them the most. That means that the villagers could easily just take payments and keep harvesting trees.
Lots of research suggests that adding money to a situation can backfire. The villagers, who may have previously valued the forest for itself, might now start to look at it just as a source of income. After the bribes, they might cut down even more trees as a result.
So the researchers ran an experiment with 1,200 forest users living in 54 rural villages around the world. They had them play a game that simulated getting paid to not cut down trees.
So what happened?
As it turns out, the bribes seemed to work. The idea that people are totally selfish and do whatever is best for themselves didn’t actually hold up in this experiment. Villagers really did choose to chop fewer trees after receiving the payment. Yet another drop in the increasingly full bucket that classical economic theory is kind of absurd.
As for the idea that adding money would make villagers value the forest less — not so much.
“That is not how users in our experiment behaved,” flatly write the researchers in a study they published in Nature.
The villagers actually continued cutting down fewer trees even after the bribes stopped. The scientists think that’s because the villagers already saw the forest in part as a resource to be used.
“For this large group of people, forests provide fuel, construction materials, food and medicine, and help users earn income to meet other basic needs,” write the scientists.
They also found something surprising that mattered a lot: trust. In experiments where people communicated with each other more, they trusted their neighbors not to cut down trees, and then they themselves cut down fewer trees. In fact, communication might be as or more useful than bribes.
“Non-monetary interventions can be at least as effective,” write the scientists. “The strongest treatment during all stages of our experiment combined a monetary incentive with opportunities to communicate.”
That’s why the scientists recommend “community-based interventions that promote inclusive governance practices, deliberative decision-making and face-to-face communication among local resource users.”
So there you go. If you want to save a rainforest, hand out cash. Or at least, start talking about it.